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Cassette Decks Out, iPhones In

How several Canadian news operations gather their info

There was a time when cassette recorders and reel-to-reel tape editing machines were state-of-the-art for radio news. Of course, that was back when the Internet was in its infancy, and digital recording was reserved for audio CDs and expensive DAT tapes.

Times have changed, and radio newsgathering has changed too.

Here are some of the techniques broadcasters are using to get breaking news on-air faster than ever.

Solid State at CBC

After years of using Sony MiniDisc digital recorders, CBC Radio News has switched to Marantz PMD660 and PMD661 solid-state audio recorders. The PMD660 records to CompactFlash cards; the PMD661 records to SD and higher capacity SDHC cards.

“The PMD660 is the older model that came on the market a few years ago,” said Bill Knott, CBC resource manager for network radio news. “You can get up to 10 hours record time on this unit, using the WAV 44.1 kHz mono file format. I haven’t pushed the PMD661 to its full capacity, but suspect that it would hold up to 50 hours of audio in a 16 GB SDHC card.”

Knott likes the PMD660/661 combination for a number of reasons. “First and foremost, both units can accept XLR microphone connections,” he said. “This means that we can use the rugged Shure microphones that we have traditionally relied on, and know that their connections to the recorders are solid and secure.”

Second, the digital architecture of these units means that they can be plugged directly into the Dalet editing system at CBC.

“The PMD660 and PMD661 are seen as external drives when you connect them by USB,” said Knott. “This provides instant access to the audio files; there’s no time wasted transferring files in real time. Or you can remove the cards and plug them into a card reader; either approach will do.”

There is a downside, however. Both the PMD660 and PMD661 are “power hogs,” said Knott. “They go through batteries far faster than they do memory, so our reporters tend to keep an extra four-set of double AAs on hand, and use their AC adapters when they can.”

The larger size of the PMD660/661 has also made some reporters unhappy. The MiniDisc, being a much smaller recorder, slipped nicely into pockets or purses.

iPhones Adaptation

Rogers’ 680News in Toronto is the largest private radio newsroom in Canada. This is not surprising, given that the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is the largest market in the nation, with more than 5 million people. As a result, this 24-hour, all-news operation has reporters on the go all the time.

Because the GTA is big, most of them are not within easy reach of the station’s downtown newsroom at 777 Jarvis Street.

To allow reporters to produce and file reports wherever they are, 680News is currently testing out the VeriCorder’s Poddio platform for the Apple iPhone. Poddio is an iPhone app that lets reporters record, edit and transmit high-quality audio reports via their iPhones. It comes with a nonlinear editor built in, so that journalists can cut and paste interview clips within their voice reports.

“There are a number of advantages with using the iPhone, including when we send in the reports they are mic quality; [and] it’s very easy to send a file to the station,” said John Hinnen, 680News vice president and general manager for news.

“Currently the software has one audio stream, but the new version which should be out in a month or so will have two tracks. Another neat thing with this technology is that we’ll be able to send it directly to our newsroom software program. We use Burli, and Burli has also been involved in the development of this program,” he said.

Citizen Journalists

Like many radio stations, iNews 880 in Edmonton, Alberta, gets a lot of its news from the public.

“Virtually anyone can be a witness to news and provide that coverage to a news outlet,” said Doug Rutherford. He is western region vice president for Corus Radio, which owns iNews 880, and general manager of Corus’ Edmonton cluster of stations. “The difference at iNews 880 is that we have actively recruited ‘citizen journalists’ to aid us in covering the news.”

Specifically, iNews 880 has signed up six citizen journalists to bolsters its coverage. They are scattered around the city and its suburbs.

“Our citizen journalists contribute news stories to the station, plus post blogs under our banner online,” said Rutherford. “Typically, they are people who are very current about what’s happening in their neighborhoods. Some even work for community newspapers.”

To encourage professionalism, the station pays a small weekly stipend to each of the citizen journalists for their contributions. “We feel it increases their accountability and responsibility to produce material on an on-going basis,” he said.

Rutherford knows that citizen journalists often lack the training of full-time professionals. This is why iNews 880 is careful in how their talents are used.

“We don’t let them work unfettered,” he said. “When we use them on air, we have our people interview them; rather than have the citizen journalists talk directly to the audience. We also vet any content they want to post on their iNews 880 blogs. Our reputation is attached to this content, so we have to be sure of its veracity.”